Menuwatch: The Crown at Whitebrook
Chris Harrod had a tough act to follow when he took on the Crown at Whitebrook, and not just because the former chef at the rural restaurant with rooms in south-east Wales was the high-profile, Michelin-starred James Sommerin.
When the restaurant closed suddenly in March 2013 due to financial difficulties, it made headlines, but the media weren't so interested in its relaunch with Harrod in October that year. "We really struggled getting the word out, and for the first eight months people thought the place was still closed," admits Harrod.
But that all changed when Michelin awarded the Crown a star in its 2015 guide. The 34-cover restaurant now regularly seats 20 customers a night (Harrod says he wants to add to the four-strong kitchen brigade before taking more bookings to avoid a slip in standards).
They will dine on the three-course for £54 Á la carte menu, or the £65 seven-course tasting menu, but the restaurant is at its busiest on Sundays when three courses cost £34.
"We've got a cheaper lunch menu during the week at £24 for three courses, but the people who come here want the full-blown experience, so we offer a five-course tasting menu for £45, but we're still trying to gauge it."
Harrod's CV is firmly in the fine-dining camp, with stints at the Lanesborough with Paul Gayler, L'Ortolan with Alan Murchison and five years as head chef of Colette's restaurant at the Grove hotel.
But it's the three and half years he spent with Raymond Blanc at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons between 1996 and 2000 that Harrod says were the most influential: "What I thought about food changed completely when I got there. Everything is about the quality and the freshness of the produce. As a chef, it's all about questioning and tasting, and that's stayed with me."
One of Harrod's best-selling main courses is directly influenced by his time with Blanc.
"We did a little egg tartlet canapé at Le Manoir of onion, caraway and bacon, and that flavour combination stayed in my head," he says.
This influence is carried through at the Crown, where Harrod serves a pan-roasted fillet of Cornish day-boat brill with a purée of onions cooked sous vide overnight with nutmeg; sliced white cabbage with toasted caraway seeds; an emulsion of half chicken stock and half milk infused with Trealy Farm applewood-smoked bacon (the famous charcutier is based in the next village) and a charred baby onion pickled in stout from the nearby Kingstone brewery in Tintern and apple balsamic. The dish is finished with the horseradish flavour of scurvy grass shoots that are sourced from the surrounding valley - just one of the many foraged items that crop up on Harrod's menus.
The vast majority of ingredients that arrive in the Crown's kitchens are British, with many coming from Wales and the borders, including Richard Vaughan's rare breed meats from Huntsham Farm in Ross on Wye. "We buy the whole animal, butcher it down and then say, 'OK, what are we going to use tonight?' That'swhy on the menu it will just say 'Ryeland lamb', and not a specific cut."
But that's not an issue if you order what's fast becoming Harrod's signature dish of suckling pig, which features virtually the whole animal, including herb and spice-marinated shoulder that's cooked for two days in a water bath; caramelised shallot and mugwort wrapped in chard leaves; pig's head
croquette and cutlet or saddle served with a golden celeriac purée, diced and roasted celeriac, raw pear slices and foraged cauliflower mushrooms and woodland sorrel.
The refurbished dining room with its newly laid wood flooring and extended lounge has a relaxed yet refined feel, perfect for the couples that are the mainstay of the Crown's business.
"We get some young couples, but the majority are 50-plus foodies from Bristol, Bath, London, Cheltenham, Birmingham, Cardiff and Hereford, as well as locals," he says.
Although the accolades have arrived swiftly for Harrod, the last thing he appears to be thinking about is resting on his laurels. Future plans include refurbishing bedrooms, a kitchen garden, more theatre in the dining room with bespoke serving pieces and an increased focus on tasting menus. "For me," he says, "it's a project, and we want to take it as far as possible."
From the menu
•Hand-dived scallops, chicory, blood orange, nuts and seeds
•Squab pigeon, cauliflower, rhubarb, bitter leaves
•Flame-grilled mackerel fillet, baked apple, pickled cucumber, laver
•Wye Valley duck confit, chicory marmalade, parsnip purée, wild garlic
•Cornish turbot fillet, smoked roe, jersey royals, ground elder, estuary findings
•Featherblade of Longhorn beef, quinoa, kohlrabi, nettle and horseradish
â¢ White chocolate mousse, caramel stout, wild chervil
•Dark chocolate ganache, bitter orange, bergamot milk chocolate cream
The Crown at Whitebrook, Whitebrook, Monmouthshire NP25 4TX